For more diverse politics, go west
Mayor's race in Denver illustrates the region's willingness to overlookrace and gender in elections.
DENVER — When Wellington Webb became the first black mayor of Denver in 1991, he learned that race simply wasn't a problem.
In a city that's 57 percent white - and only 14 percent black - both candidates were African-Americans. "It really spoke to the openness of the people of this city," he says.
These days, that election doesn't seem so unusual. Mr. Webb, now seeking a third term in his signature sneakers and navy-blue suits, is facing two opponents and a third potential challenger who are African-American.
Throughout the West, women and minorities are enjoying a level of political success unmatched anywhere in the United States. Each state and race has its own peculiarities, and the candidates include a range of governing philosophies. But experts say all are benefiting from an unusual mix of history and current events - a less tradition-bound past and a present marked by a huge influx of open-minded residents.
"Politics [in the West] is open to age, gender, and race," says David Olson, a political scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle.
From Arizona to Washington State, the willingness to overlook a candidate's sex or skin color is having a profound effect on the face of government.
Here in Colorado, voters elected the nation's only current black lieutenant governor, a Republican who ran on the same ticket as the governor. (Gov. Bill Owens is white, and some political observers say Lt. Gov. Joe Rogers helped Mr. Owens win the extremely close governor's race.)
Coloradans also elected their first Latino to statewide office, Attorney General Ken Salazar (D). In addition, Congress's only native American, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R), was reelected, as was Secretary of State Vikki Buckley (R), who is black.
In Washington, state elections recently produced a legislature that is 40.8 percent women, the largest percentage of any state legislature in history.
And in Arizona, the top five elected state officials, from governor to superintendent of public instruction, are now women.
In some ways, women in the West have been helped by an Old West legacy: Hard work was needed to survive on the frontier, and there was no room for cultural or religious hierarchies.
"There's something of that frontier spirit that's still operating - strong and independent women running government, or a ranch," says Barbara Babcock, professor of cultural studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
History of success
Western women also conquered the business and political frontiers of the Old West. Mr. Olson cites Bertha Landes, who, as mayor of Seattle in 1924, was the first woman mayor of a big city. That tradition has not been forgotten, he says, especially in the relatively new Western states.
"Yeah, voters know this," Olson says. "They're taught it in school."
Washington State Sen. Shirley Winsley (R), who has been in the legislature 22 of the past 26 years, says women's involvement in politics is the culmination of changes in society that give them greater access to civic and community groups.
"I remember when women could not join the Rotary Club," says Senator Winsley, who represents part of the Tacoma area.
Indeed, during her time in office, much has changed. Voters now see women as better able to deal with the issues at the forefront of their agendas, such as education and health care. At the same time, Olson notes that female politicians have helped give these issues greater exposure. Call it a chicken-or-egg debate.
Choosing issues carefully
Sometimes, however, candidates' decision to not base their agenda on an issue that is normally associated with their sex or ethnic group can prove the difference in an election. When minorities skirt racial issues such as affirmative action, "[Voters] see their color, but they don't see their color translated into policies," says Evelyn Hu-DeHart, chair of the ethnic studies department at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
For his part, Webb says he touts his policies to help minorities, such as opening up Denver International Airport concessions to small businesses, and by extension, more minority-owned businesses.
But Lieutenant Governor Rogers says transportation - a nonracial topic - was one of his biggest issues. And like Rogers, Attorney General Salazar says his knowledge of agriculture was a key to his victory.
"I could get support in places people thought would be tough sledding for Hispanics," says Salazar, citing small and rural Dolores County in southwest Colorado.
Yet perhaps more important than any of these factors is the fact that Western states lack the divisive racial history found in other parts of the country, such as the South. People move West and leave such baggage behind.
"Colorado is a new state that was born and developed at a time when people came West to seek a new fortune," says Webb. "There's not a lot of biases of other places."
Latinos lose out?
That may be true, but some locals maintain that one reason African-Americans have become so prominent in politics here is precisely that they represent such a small portion of the Colorado population - only about 4 percent.
"What accounts for the seeming paradox of a state that is relatively open to African-American candidates but refuses to elect Hispanics?" wrote Denver Post editorial writer Bob Ewegen the year before Salazar's election. "Sociologists have long noted that where there are two significant minorities in an area, the larger minority usually suffers more discrimination. People can showcase their toleration toward the smaller minority, which they seldom encounter, while they resent and fear the larger minority as more of a threat."
Hispanics make up 13 percent of the Colorado population, according to 1990 census figures.
Still, Webb isn't coasting on popularity or goodwill in his coming May election. As he did in 1991, he'll pound the pavement to rally support. His campaign logo remains a white sneaker on a navy blue background, and when he announced a run for a third term this month, he wore white sneakers.